David Dimbleby: The grand inquisitor

He's the quintessential anchorman who has dedicated 40 years to current affairs at the BBC. Yet despite his failed candidacy for the chairman's job, the 'Question Time' host says he still 'loves it'. David Usborne joins him in Miami

David Dimbleby is fussing with the furniture in the living room of his hotel suite a block from Ocean Drive in South Beach. First, he moves the small armchair so it sits directly opposite the interviewer. Then he has second thoughts, as if realising that, for once in his professional life, he is not facing a camera but only a tiny voice recorder. He picks the chair up a second time and plops it down next to his visitor.

There is intense curiosity in the pale blue irises of his eyes. Here he is in Miami, preparing to broadcast a special edition of Question Time from the city, before repairing to Washington from where he will anchor a live US election night special tomorrow night, and a British newspaper wants to talk to him. What about? As we discuss later on, Dimbleby is not a man - unlike some of his peers - who likes to project himself, and least of all his political views, on to his television appearances. He wonders out loud if he is to be interrogated about the exorbitant scale of the BBC's operation to cover this presidential race.

But, if that is the issue, he is not about to be defensive about it. He admits there are roughly 170 BBC bodies involved in some way or another - including everyone from reporters to film editors - in bringing news of the Bush-Kerry contest and its denouement to Britain and to the rest of the world. As you would expect, Dimbleby, who, more than anyone, symbolises the news and current affairs remit of the corporation, says quite calmly that there is nothing wrong with that number. If that is what it takes to do a proper job of covering the 2004 race for the White House, then so be it.

What Dimbleby does wear on his sleeve is his sincere affection for the corporation, where he has worked without a break - though always on a freelance basis - since first appearing as a reporter with BBC Bristol 40 years ago. He attempted, not for the first time, to win the chairmanship earlier this year when Gavyn Davies departed in the wake of the Hutton inquiry, only to lose out to Michael Grade. He quantifies his level of disappointment now at not getting the job as "nil". His failed candidacy has left him, after all, where he has always been, as the face of gravitas in the national front room. He has chaired Question Time since 1994 and continues to anchor the most important national - and international - set-piece events, from state funerals to elections, including this one in America. "I love it," he says simply.

And right now, here in the United States, he is entirely in his element. Last Thursday was the second visit by the Question Time team to this side of the water. (The first was in New York in 2002 on the first anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.) What pleases him most is the reaction of the audiences here who get to ask the questions of the panel, which, last Thursday, included the ferociously anti-Bush film-maker Michael Moore. "The reaction is, 'Why can't we have this sort of thing here?'," he notes with a smile. The differences between American and British journalism is another area we are to linger on later.

That is not to say that Dimbleby does not harbour nervousness about the broadcast he will be making over several hours from the BBC's Washington DC studios tomorrow night. Notwithstanding the armies of BBC folk here for the election, one man who will not be with him in the studio is Peter Snow, the calibrator par excellence of election night results. "Ironically, they don't have the technology he needs over here," Dimbleby explains. So he will have to make do with conversing with Snow across the Atlantic as the first returns flow in.

Then there is the whole challenge of declaring the winner, which everyone, including himself, got so wrong last time when Florida was proclaimed a Gore win before the muddle of hanging chads and butterfly ballots began to emerge. Dimbleby says one thing: he will not be jumping in before the Associated Press and the American networks have picked a winner.

Energising him is the knowledge that this election is generating so much passion. "It's huge," he concurs before describing going to a polling station in Miami earlier in the day where people, a full week before election day, were queuing for 30 minutes to vote early to ensure their vote got counted. In some parts of Florida, people were waiting three hours to vote early. The level of interest is high here, for sure, but, for many reasons, it is also the case in Britain.

"I think that in this country it is seen as a defining election - the most important for decades - and in Britain it is seen in exactly the same way," says Dimbleby. "It is riveting because of the dichotomy between Bush and Kerry, because it will decide so much about America's standing in the world and it is obviously going to have such a huge impact on our relations with the United States. I think it has touched a real nerve in the UK, because of the fact that the Iraq war is so unpopular there and they are watching with fascination how it is dividing American voters, who will say whether the war was a sensible thing or not." Spain was the first to have a national vote in the shadow of the war and now comes America. Britain will have its turn later.

And then there is the additional dynamic of where a Bush defeat would leave Tony Blair. "It would be an uncomfortable moment" for the Government, Dimbleby suggests. "If the American electorate throws out Bush because of his judgement on Iraq - and if he is thrown out, it will be because of Iraq - it will send a shiver down the spine of Labour. If the country that we allied ourselves with decides that the decision to go to war was wrong, what will the British electorate decide when it gets to vote?"

Covering the US election is one thing, but the prospect of a General Election in Britain presents the BBC with a different kind of challenge. The corporation is only just now recovering from the beating it suffered at the hands of the Government over its reporting of the run-up to the Iraq war, which culminated with the criticisms contained in the Hutton report and the ensuing departures of Davies and his director general, Greg Dyke. "It will be a very tough election for us," he says, noting that Alastair Campbell, who fled No 10 after the Hutton saga, is slated to return to help Blair win the next election. "The bullying is bound to start up again when Campbell is back," Dimbleby says. "He may be coming back at us with knobs on. The BBC will resist it, of course. Then again, maybe Campbell has been tempered by his own fall from grace."

Yet, Dimbleby notes that falling out over Iraq and weapons of mass destruction was hardly the first time that government and the BBC have taken up arms. And always, he says, the BBC endures and survives. He attributes this toughness to the commitment of its staff - the producers and journalists - for whom, he says, working at the BBC is nothing short of a "mission". "People at the BBC get cowed sometimes and can be leant on badly," he explains, "but their spirit is always resolute, to make the best programme they can in the circumstances - not for the boss or for the shareholders, because, in our case, the viewers are the shareholders." And the reality is that the BBC still holds a special standing in the world. He notes that in countries like Italy and France, governments who don't like what they see on the screens routinely replace news division heads with figures more suited to their purposes; that does not happen in Britain.

And whatever minefields may lie ahead - and they include forging a fresh charter next year, maintaining the licence fee system and coping with digital broadcasting - the BBC will endure more or less in its present form, he contends, at least "in the medium term". Dimbleby recalls sitting next to Margaret Thatcher at a charity event shortly after she became prime minister and quizzing her on rumours that she intended to privatise the corporation. She replied that every time she raised it with anyone in private she was rudely told that it would be politically disastrous. So she had decided to leave well alone.

"Britain without the BBC would be unthinkable," Dimbleby declares. "To my mind it ranks equally with the monarchy and parliament as an institution that we cannot be without. It is one of the pillars of Britain. It is so important that without it Britain would be an immeasurably impoverished country and its reputation in the world would be impoverished too because the objectivity it offers is much needed by people who are a million miles from getting it from anywhere else." That would include from Britain's printed media. Only if you read all the quality newspapers together would you even approach getting the breadth of news that the BBC offers, he argues, never mind how objective it would be.

But Dimbleby, who celebrated his 66th birthday while in Florida on Thursday, concedes that recent years have not been the most glorious. The Hutton debacle aside, there has been the drift to dumb down content, especially when it came to BBC1. That included decisions to clear the first channel of anything remotely intellectually challenging, as well as to shift Panorama, his old home, to Monday nights. But, he says, some of those determinations are in the process of being reversed.

"I have a feeling that there is a change of mood," he offers, noting that the corporation has gone through similar cycles before, even as far back as at the genesis of commercial television, when the debate about popularity and ratings on the one hand and quality content on the other first erupted. "There is nothing new about the argument. There has always been this question about how far we go one way or another and there is no absolute. We have seen a move towards ratings and away from quality. We had a sort of panic stations there for a while. I can't tell you what will be in next year's schedule, but I think it's over now and there will be a swing back towards determining that BBC1 should offer the kinds of things that people would not see anywhere else; things that will engage people again."

Meanwhile, the BBC will gain strength from the reforms following on from the Hutton affair. Unfortunate at the time was the perception that Davies and Dyke were Labourites. That, he suggests, led both sides to over-react when the initial charges of biased reporting surfaced. At the highest level of the corporation there was "an over-reaction induced by needing to be seen as independent," he explains. "Somebody else may have been able to react in a more considered way". Davies, he recalls, was particularly weighed down by the impression he was somehow beholden to the Government because his wife works for Gordon Brown. In the meantime, Dimbleby is glad to see that work is afoot to make the governors of the BBC more detached from the director general and other managers. For the first time, for example, the governors are commissioning independent research into what the corporation is doing.

With all these thoughts in his head, you can see why the chairmanship appealed to him. "At the time, some people suggested to me that I would suffer withdrawal symptoms if I gave up this to be chairman," he says, "but I have a funny feeling that I would have enjoyed it. Also, it just seemed a natural progression after 40 years of broadcasting because, in some way, it would have rounded out my career. But I knew it was a long shot and I would say that my regrets about not getting it lasted about one day."

The most common question asked of Dimbleby, who lives near Eastbourne in Sussex, when he meets strangers on the street is: "Why don't you ever tell us what you think?" Here he draws a comparison between himself and Jon Snow, over at Channel 4. He does not criticise Jon, but notes that he, in his book writing, has made no secret whatsoever of his personal beliefs. But not so Dimbleby. It is an "absolute rule" that he will never say for whom he votes in British elections. And he suggests that were he to expound his own views on the subjects of the day on Question Time it would quickly become "boring". Moreover, "if you are chairing a public discussion, you don't want to give hostage to fortune if you allow people to think that what you are asking and what you are saying springs from being parti pris on an issue. To explain things properly you have to keep a very open mind and not allow your own views to be known."

There is also a problem for journalists and media institutions, he says, if their own political predilections prevent them from examining all the issues that are out there, including those they find distasteful. "It's very easy to miss political tricks that way," he says. Returning to Thatcher, he remembers how the media in general failed to take seriously word that she, with Keith Joseph's encouragement, was investigating the value of a monetarist economic policy. It was only on the urging of one Panorama producer that the programme made the decision to look closely at what they were thinking, which, as history showed, turned to be a good call. More recently, after the last European elections, the BBC, he reveals, berated itself for not taking a closer look at UKIP beforehand. The jingoistic platform of UKIP did not appeal to many inside the BBC, but the party emerged as a force in the European Parliament.

Nor should any journalist shy from posing awkward questions to politicians. In comparing British and American political journalism, Dimbleby says he is most struck by the extent to which American reporters get derailed into assessing the chances that particular political initiatives will win support in the multiple arms of American government, whether on the Hill, in the Pentagon or wherever, rather than asking questions about the initiatives themselves. "Because of the complexity of the American political system and the disparate centres of power," he says, "political commentary can very easily become a matter of how this will play and not whether it will work and what its impact will be. It's a kind of cop-out. But because we have a narrow power base in Britain, where the Prime Minister, especially now, can do more or less what he wants, we have got used to looking at the policies and the effect on the public."

That may in part explain why British political reporters have the reputation of being more direct and aggressive than their American counterparts. And why Brits can sometimes get in trouble tackling American public figures, just as Dimbleby did when he pushed the Lewinsky affair too far with President Clinton in an interview this summer. While Mr Clinton visibly lost his temper on camera, Dimbleby says that the former president was cordial after the lights went out.

But he has little time for Clinton's decision shortly afterwards to cancel an interview he was scheduled to do with his brother, Jonathan Dimbleby, a few weeks later. "Just because we have the same name; I considered that peevish and small-minded."

Maybe this interviewer has been too soft. Dimbleby, who, quoting a Lord Denning line - "I have all the Christian virtues except resignation" - says he has no notions of retiring any time soon, displays a gracious ease that never seems to falter. Perhaps that has come with years of training. He has, apparently, shown rather less patience with the managers of this hotel, however. With a knock on the door, a maintenance man steps in. Our man from the BBC has some issues. The air conditioning had failed the previous night and his bedroom had become stuffy. Would he please look into it? And, oh yes, the Jacuzzi - that wasn't working either. Well, at 66, he is surely allowed a few comforts while on the road.

LIFE AND TIMES: THE INTERVIEWER

THE DYNASTY

David Dimbleby inherited from his father, Richard, a name that was synonymous with British current affairs broadcasting. His father was one of the pioneers - some describe him as the 'founder' - of BBC radio news and accompanied the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1939 as a war correspondent. Richard Dimbleby was the first radio journalist to report from the Belsen concentration camp and later became the BBC's foremost commentator, covering such events as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the death of Winston Churchill. David and his younger brother Jonathan were to follow this tradition.

THE BBC

After Charterhouse and a series of universities (PPE at Oxford, Paris, Perugia) David Dimbleby, almost inevitably, joined the BBC. His first job was as a reporter on BBC Bristol. Almost immediately he was presenting shows on network television on subjects from religion to science. He worked as a director - including making a film on the Ku-Klux-Klan - and had a brief spell in New York working as a special correspondent for CBS News.

THE PRESENTER

Dimbleby's destiny was to be a presenter and during a career that has lasted more than 40 years he has fronted such programmes as Panorama, 24 Hours, People and Power, The Dimbleby Talk-in and This Week Next Week. Some productions, such as The White Tribe of Africa and An Ocean Apart, Dimbleby wrote as well as presented.

QUESTION TIME

Perhaps more than any other show, Dimbleby is known for Question Time, which celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this year. He became the programme's chairman in 1994, succeeding Sir Robin Day, and has overseen such memorable panel clashes as Ian Hislop's confrontation with Mary Archer and Margaret Beckett being pummelled by the QT audience in the wake of the Hutton report.

ON THE ROAD

Like his father before him, David Dimbleby has become the man the BBC turns to when it needs a reassuring voice to talk the nation through the biggest state occasions, such as the State Opening of Parliament, Trooping the Colour and the Remembrance Events at the Cenotaph. He commentated at the funerals of Diana, Princess of Wales and HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. But when Huw Edwards was chosen to anchor coverage of this year's 60th anniversary of D-Day, some wondered whether the Dimbleby era might be coming to a close.

CHAIRMANSHIP

Dimbleby put himself forward as a potential successor to Gavyn Davies as chairman of the BBC, only to be overlooked in favour of Michael Grade. Dimbleby, who had been regarded as a strong candidate and was championed by the Daily Telegraph among others, claims to have no regrets. His standing at the BBC does not seem to have been harmed, as he prepares to anchor tomorrow's coverage of the US elections.

Ian Burrell

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